Interviews, insight & analysis on Ecommerce

Sustainability is meaningless without authenticity

by Nikki Cunningham, MD, Curious

Primark and Asos recently pledged to boost their sustainability commitments – Asos is aiming for net-zero impact by 2030 and Primark is upping its use of recycled or sustainably sourced materials. 

As arguably two of the biggest purveyors of fast fashion in the UK, this is a shrewd move from both businesses – and not just because it might keep the wrath of the eco-conscious at bay for a little while. That is, so long as they can keep the promise.

Brands can no longer ignore the need to commit more fully to an increasingly sustainable operation. For the last couple of years grassroots start-ups have carved out a position as sustainable to the core. From day one they have had an eye on the environment and have green credentials built into the entire business model, from operations right through to production.

However, established corporations are now playing catch up. What they face today is a huge pivot that must be navigated quickly, authentically and transparently. 

Make it more than lip service

It is admittedly an unenviable position to be in: Consumer pressure and expectation means they cannot avoid improving their commitment to environmental sustainability, yet making meaningful change that not only runs through the whole business but is communicated effectively to the public, is no mean feat for any multinational corporation. Particularly for companies that have built their success on the entirely non-environmental model of selling cheap and selling often. 

These businesses are known – and loved – for selling affordable clothes, but for every person who flocks to their stores and sites to stock up on all the latest fashion trends for less than a cup of coffee, there are as many people who are infuriated by the disregard for sustainability that the fast fashion industry holds.

There is therefore a higher sense of responsibility on the likes of Primark and Asos to act accordingly. It is imperative that any announcements around a renewed effort to be kinder to the environment are followed up by action. They must now weave this new pledge into every corner of their respective businesses and bring about real, long-term change. 

Be inauthentic at your peril

It is because of the reputation of these businesses that the public and press will be looking to trip them up. Recent history is littered with examples of brands that have failed to convince people that they are genuinely committed to going green. With so much knowledge sharing and an ever increasing public education around sustainability, brands cannot afford to be disingenuous in their efforts. 

To make such claims and then be found wanting can be catastrophic for a brand – reputations today live or die by negative press and public exposes, and at a time when the environment is such a passion point for so many, failing to uphold these promises will lose them huge favour with customers.

Long-standing brands who want to go green may be looking to leap-frog the competition, including those brands that have launched in this new era of sustainability, but first and foremost they must make the switch successfully and begin living their new eco-focused approach without risk of being accused of that very 21st century corporate crime: green-washing.

Walk the walk throughout the business

To get believability it all comes from action – brands must do as they say. Nothing should be done as a PR stunt, every change needs to have its roots in a genuine desire to be better. This calls for every element of the business to be analysed for ways they can be made more green, from offices to factories to stores. No private jets for the CEO, no cutting corners in one area to compensate for more expensive eco-friendly practices in another, and no questionable morality that you hope will be overlooked just because you are kind to the planet. 

If a brand’s move to be more green is authentic then they must put meat on the bones of the press statement. External messaging should shout about your pledge – whether that’s your website and social feeds or ad campaigns and in-store messaging; internal communications should encourage all staff to adopt more environmentally friendly measures; community projects should be initiated that complement your stance; an undertaking should be made to offset any negative emissions. The list is endless but in essence your commitment should go to the very heart of your brand and, more than anything, be transparent. Not only will this show you are genuine but it will inspire others and, if nothing else, hold you to account.

Do it well and be on the right side of history

Consumers in 2021 expect brands to be accountable. This is no longer a nice to have, but a must-have. Any commitment by brands to confront the issue of their impact on the environment should be applauded, and long may it spread deeper into businesses and across every sector of industry.

We live in an open, socially-driven, consumer-led world and brands have nowhere to hide. Any public declaration must be made in the full knowledge it can and will be translated into long term action that sees them ‘doing their bit’ with a dedication worthy of the magnitude of the crisis we are facing. 

That’s the real key to avoiding a green wash.


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